Just like everything else in cycling, the peloton’s annual high-stakes game of musical chairs is on hold due to COVID-19.
In a normal year, rider agents would be in their busiest months right now to secure new contracts for their clients, and teams would be moving to bolster their lineups with high-profile transfers.
With this season far from routine, the coronavirus shutdown has put the brakes on the peloton’s usually vibrant rider market.
“The rider market has been very quiet,” Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White told VeloNews. “A lot of teams are waiting to see what happens.”
With so much uncertainty in the peloton due to race cancelations, rescheduling, budget cuts, and financial shortfalls brought on by coronavirus, few deals are being made right now.
A few teams with financial stability have been extending contracts — Ag2r-La Mondiale recently re-signed Belgian classics star Oliver Naesen to a three-year extension — but most squads are in a holding pattern.
“There’s been very minimal talk of rider movement right now,” White said. “The financial situation of a lot of teams is too uncertain. Some teams don’t even know what their budgets will be in 2021.”
By May in a normal season, cycling’s flourishing and largely unregulated rider market would be in full swing. And with nearly 200 riders in the WorldTour peloton off-contract this season, including some of the biggest names like Chris Froome, Thibaut Pinot, and Greg Van Avermaet, the 2020 transfer season was expected to be one of the most active in years.
But with the unprecedented racing hiatus and larger economic uncertainty gripping the world economy, the transfer market has largely gone into standby mode.
“Things have been quiet. Everything will happen later this year due to coronavirus,” rider agent Giuseppe Acquadro told VeloNews. “Teams don’t know their budgets, and maybe some teams will close. It’s expected that it will take some time this year.”
Uncertainty is the keyword for the rider market right now. Rider agents and team managers told VeloNews that everyone is waiting to see if and when racing resumes, and many holding back their checkbooks in case one or more teams fold.
Acquadro, who represents about 40 riders in the peloton, said if racing resumes as scheduled in late July and the world economy can show signs of life this fall, the rider market should not be too severely impacted. But if races such as the Tour de France are ultimately canceled, and there is a second wave of COVID-19 infections across Europe, cycling could be facing dire consequences.
“If they are going to start canceling races, and cannot do the races, this is going to be more complicated,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s important what happens in the next two or three months.”
The big spoiler could be if several teams fold all at once. Even having one team collapse puts up to 30 riders onto the market. If two or three would close, which would mean up to 100 riders might be looking for a job.
“We hope that does not happen,” Acquadro said. “But if two teams close, that would mean 60 riders on the market. And it’s possible that not all of them would find a contract.”
Though official rules say the transfer market officially opens August 1, normally by May, teams would be busy extending contracts and signing new riders. In fact, White said the days of signing new contracts on the second rest day of the Tour de France, long the traditional window to close new deals, is something of the past.
“The rider market over the past five years has been earlier and earlier,” White said. “Last year, we didn’t sign one rider during the Tour. Everything was done before.”
With a risk that a few teams might fold, teams are betting they can sign top talent in a seller’s market.
“Teams will be keeping some money in reserve,” White said. “Before they spend the money, they will wait to see if teams are going to fold.”
The unprecedented race stoppage is reaching beyond the WorldTour. The women’s peloton has been hit just as hard, with some teams reducing salaries and struggling to survive. Professional Continental teams — now called ProTeams — are also facing potential financial shortfalls.
Even the important development categories are impacted. With racing stopped, there is some discussion of extending junior and U23 categories for one year into 2021 for riders in those designations in order to give them more time to perform before age forces them to move up.
“You have to draw a line somewhere, and 23 is already quite old. If you are going to change that line now, how do you reverse it?” Merckx told Sporza.
Merckx’s team has been a steady pipeline for young talent to enter the WorldTour. Over the past two seasons, eight riders have graduated from the team to the WorldTour. Merckx doesn’t see a larger trend toward youth changing this year despite the lack of racing and the chance for younger riders to show their stuff.
“If the WorldTour teams have done their homework, then they already know more or less who is good, and who fits the team,” Merckx said. “Maybe they will be missing some experience, but riders at the end of their careers will have a harder time getting back to a top level after standing still for so long. [Teams] will be more for youth, and choose the future.”
The big fear among riders is being caught out without a contract, or being faced with a salary reduction. Paychecks have been steadily rising over the past decade across the WorldTour. The COVID-19 crisis could knock down some of those numbers from top-tier winners to ever-steady domestiques.
Riders who were considering retiring this season have retooled their plans, simply because they want to end their careers on the road, not sitting on the home trainer. Michael Albasini of Mitchelton-Scott wanted to have his final race be the Tour de Suisse in June, but he’s hoping to race again this season before retiring.
Others are having second thoughts. Enrico Gasparotto (NTT Pro Cycling) might try to extend his career despite planning on retiring this season.
“The idea was to finish the year with 2020 to finish in style,” Gasparotto told VeloNews. “My career has been quite long, and one idea was to stop at the end of this year. Now with this coronavirus problem, I am thinking twice about it.
“Not knowing the future is tough for everybody, but for the younger guys, it’s even worse,” said Gasparotto, a two-time winner at Amstel Gold Race. “If I decided to keep going, but cannot find a contract, at least I had a pretty good career. But for riders who are 25 or 26, who haven’t had a chance to show their class, maybe they won’t find a contract. We are walking into an unknown world now.”
One rider agent said a big fear in the peloton is forced retirement, saying, “There are guys who don’t want to retire, but are worried about having to as they won’t get a contract.”
Acquadro, whose client list includes such riders as Egan Bernal, Michal Kwiatkowski, and Richard Carapaz, said there is starting to be an uptick in conversations with team managers and owners, but admitted contracts will be signed later than ever in 2020.
“Every rider I speak with is excited to race again. A rider’s first dream is always to race, and then the contract comes later,” Acquadro said. “There is no question we are in a very strange situation.”